In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Urban Mobility and Race:Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and Teju Cole's Open City
  • Aliki Varvogli (bio)

In his 2000 study, Race and Urban Space in Contemporary American Culture, Liam Kennedy argues that "race commonly functions to frame ways of seeing and reading the city."1 This claim still holds true today, but recent American fiction has helped to highlight the extent to which race, and more specifically blackness, continues to be transformed, making it necessary for us to alter and extend the ways in which we understand what Liam Kennedy has termed "the transparent presence and the signifying absence of race in the production of urban space."2 Kennedy's analysis of fiction and film was "consciously skewed towards a white (WASP and ethnic) and black (African-American) axis of urban relations,"3 but novels such as Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007) and Teju Cole's Open City (2011) remind us that there are ways of being black in the United States that do not fit into the (admittedly broad) category of "African-American." Like Kennedy, most critics of race and urban space in American fiction have understandably focused on the study of African-Americans as the main representatives of blackness in the United States. However, as Giles Foden has noted, a number of books written by authors with recent or current (rather than historical) African roots have focused "partly on how U.S. race issues subsume a variety of identity questions arising from an African-exile or postcolonial context."4 This article aims to update the discourse on race in urban studies and the novel by examining how the immigrant, exilic and postcolonial contexts shape and influence ways of seeing and representing American cities. American fiction has made an important contribution to [End Page 235] our understanding of city life, and for a century or more, American authors have written about what it is like to be an African-American living in a city, and what it is like to be an immigrant in the city. The novels under discussion here combine these two themes by filtering immigration through the lens of blackness: they engage with the ways in which their immigrant subjects experience urban life as black African males who are not African-American. Furthermore, though I use the term "immigrant" here as a kind of shorthand, the two protagonists understand and experience their lives in the United States, and their reasons for moving there, in complex ways that defy easy categorization. Mengestu and Cole extend the enquiry into urban life as experienced by a city's various "others" by concentrating on a poor and marginalized man and a well-educated and privileged one: two contrasting figures united by the experience of belonging and not belonging—being American, but newly and reluctantly American; being black and African, but not African-American. Louis Chude-Sokei calls such characters "the newly black Americans," and notes that the tensions between African-American and African diasporic communities are a major feature of "this new literature by Africans."5

The Beautiful Things and Open City were published within four years of each other, and received great critical acclaim and a host of literary prizes. Though very different in style, plot, character and setting, they both deal with young African males who live in major American cities and search not only for an identity but also for a wider context or web of connections. Mengestu's novel tells the story of Sepha Stephanos, a young man who comes to the United States from Ethiopia to run away from political strife, and who ends up staying as a reluctant immigrant. Cole's narrator is Julius, a New York–based psychiatrist who grew up in Nigeria with an African father and a German mother; he travels not back to Africa but to Europe—more specifically, to Brussels—to find out more about his past. These two characters are black and come from Africa, but they are not African-American as the term is customarily understood. A study of the novels themselves can be aided by African-American literary scholarship, but only with limited success. For...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 235-257
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.